Last updated: 09:00 PM ET, Wed November 11 2015

Opinion Home | Tales From the Leap

  • Shannon Wolf | November 11, 2015 9:00 PM ET

    Istanbul: Elusive Silver Linings

    Istanbul: Elusive Silver Linings

    PHOTO: There is no doubt that the Blue Mosque is anything but impressive both from afar and up close. A must-see if you’re in Istanbul. (photos by Shannon Wolf)

    Okay, I’m going to be honest — initially, I was overjoyed to visit Istanbul. It appeared to be a vibrant city full of mystery at every corner, and I was excited to get lost in the eclectic Grand Bazaar and spice market, stand in awe at the detailed architecture and stroll through the city on seven hills, living as locals do.

    What I’ve learned, however, is that some things just look better from afar.  After visiting Istanbul three different times, I think it’s fair to say that the thing I enjoyed most was my cushy flight out of there on Turkish Airlines. Beyond that, this city just isn’t for me, and should be dubbed “the city of disappointment.”

    With its population of 14 million crammed forcefully together, it’s no mystery why a once-promising city is exhausting at best. The metropolis itself is surprisingly far from liberal, and gender equality is clearly still an issue — the stares make even the strongest women uncomfortable (even covered up). The Grand Bazaar has become a giant tourist trap that just screams consumerism on a low-quality scale and its streets are chaotic, unorganized and prices are high.

    On a positive note — with every cloud, there is a silver lining: If you know where to look, you can find a bargain. Turkey has the freshest tomatoes I’ve ever eaten, the street food is great — especially Midye dolma and Borek, not to mention the views of the city at dusk are marvelous while enjoying a lemon-mint nargileh.

    PHOTO: When on a budget, you can never go wrong with corn on the cob or a Turkish breakfast!

    If you do find yourself in Istanbul, you only need two days to see it all. Simply put, you can make the best or the worst of it. Here’s the best for those on a budget:

    Main Airport: Ataturk International

    Hostels/Key Locations

    Best Hostel/Location for easy access to most areas of Istanbul: Colony Hostel (24 TL)

    Party/Shopping area: Taksim

    If you’re looking for fun (but expensive) nightlife and streets upon streets of shopping, you’ll likely want to stay near Taksim.

    Cheapest Hostel: Soho Hostel (23 TL)

    Neighborhood closest to the Mosques: Sultanahmet

    Cheapest Hostel: Best Island Hotel (17 TL)

    Types of Transit:

    In order to get around Istanbul, consider walking out of the question. You have the option of using many different forms of transit including: Metro, Tram, Dolmus (shared taxi) and bus. Forgo taxis — all are overpriced.


    • Without Istanbul Kart, each ride is 4 TL — with a card, it’s less than half

    • Dolmuses are around 2.10 TL

    BIG money saving tip: Directly upon arrival, buy the Istanbul Kart for cheaper transit on all vehicles excluding Dolmuses: To buy an Istanbul Kart, you need to pay a non-refundable 10 TL fee (for the actual card and the service), and of course an amount of your choice to load onto the card.


    • Hitchhike: Turkey is one of the best and easiest places to hitch and is widely common amongst locals and travelers alike. (However, never hitchhike alone).

    • Long Distance Coaches: METRO is the easiest to navigate and for a few extra dollars, it’s worth the lack of stress.
    Flights: If you book ahead, flights can be cheaper or even on par with the cost of taking a coach.

    Eat & Drink:

    Cheapest: Sok Supermarket is the most inexpensive for food and drinks.  

    Best Value Restaurant: Ali Baba Kanaat Lokantasi — Fixed menu consisting of spicy kidney beans, rice, salad or pickles, bread and a drink of choice. (8 TL)

    Best Turkish Breakfast: Dogaciyiz Gourmet (vegetarian)

    Best Street Food:

    • Cig kofte: A vegan spread consisting of 14 different spices, walnut, hazelnut, tomato sauce, salt and wheat served with pita, lettuce and BBQ sauce (A must-eat!).

    • Midye dolma: Mussels mixed with spicy rice and served with a squeeze of lemon juice. (another must-eat, the best are in Taksim).

    • Misir: Boiled or grilled corn on the cob (best budget street food for 2 TL).

    • Simit: A molasses-dipped, sesame-crusted Turkish bagel.

    • Acma: A Turkish savory bun (can’t beat a 1 TL Breakfast!).

    • Borek: A flaky pastry with layers of various fillings such as spinach, cheese, minced meat or potato (great breakfast or lunch!).

    • Balik-ekmek: A fish sandwich — don’t go to vendors on the pier. For the best, after 8 p.m., along the river there are chefs making them fresh on a small BBQ (8 TL). 

    • Doner: The go-to street food you’ll see everyone eating — veal, beef or chicken and served on a plate or inside a bun.

    • Kumpir: A baked potato with tons of toppings to choose from.

    • Kestane: Freshly boiled, roast chestnuts.

    Cheapest Drinks:

    Note: Alcohol is EXPENSIVE in Turkey. All stores stop selling alcohol at 10 p.m. and bars are outrageously expensive. If you drink out, go for happy hour or the bars below:

    • Price in corner-store for beer: 4.5-6 TL

    • Semerkent Bar: 6 TL pint of beer and shot of tequila

    • Haydar Rock Bar: for a half-liter of beer for 4 TL

    Famous Mosques:

    • Sultanahmet (The Blue Mosque) — Free admission

    • Hagia Sophia

    • Suleymaniye (the Magnificent)

    • Yeni Cami (New Mosque)

    PHOTO: Although the Blue Mosque is touristy, with a long line to view the interior, it is worth it just to see the details.

    MUST DO’S:

    • Terrace Cafe: Go at sunset for the best 360-degree view of the city while enjoying some of the best and cheapest nargileh (aka: shisha) in the city.

    • Hidden Gem: Head to the Dolapdere flea market every Sunday morning (it’s open roughly until 3 a.m. until 3 p.m.).

    • Wander around Balat — An old Jewish and Greek area with beautiful architecture.

    • Get your party on in the Nevizade Sokak neighborhood or Taksim.

    • Take a ferry at Eminonu to Bosphorous or Princess Island for the day.

    • Watch the sunset at Golata tower or Konak Cafe for beautiful views over the city.

    PHOTO: From atop Suleymaniye, you can see a wonderful view over the Bosporus before heading for a cheap, filling meal across the street at Ali Baba Kanaat Lokantasi.

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Shannon Wolf Tales From the Leap

Shannon Wolf Shannon Wolf is a freelance photographer and writer, traveling across the globe with an open itinerary and no intent of stopping. Originally from Toronto, Canada, she left behind a fast paced life to truly live and not just exist in an attempt to inspire others to follow their bliss. At age 26, Shannon has visited 20+ countries on four continents around the world. She has travelled overland by chicken-bus and tuk-tuks, hitchhiked by fruit trucks and through islands on horse and buggy. She has slept in the jungles of Nicaragua, on benches in London, secluded hidden beaches and she’s only getting started.
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